News Features

Tigers’ midnight games over Colombo airspace
  • High flying Air Force caught napping
  • Kfirs, Mig 27s saved by a whisker

“The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) is this island’s pride in the skies. Determined and dedicated to protect our nation’s sovereignty, this effective arm of our security forces comprises well trained and disciplined individuals, armed with state-of-the-art weapons systems,” states the SLAF website.
How state-of-the-art is the radar system or, how primitive it is, was amply demonstrated on Sunday night, when the Tigers staged their midnight games over Colombo airspace while the air force was caught napping.
The SLAF website continues: “Resulting from strategic training, creative thinking and constant upgrading, the SLAF has maintained its principles of constant evolution and forward thinking.”
Granted. But the ‘forward thinking’ should have envisaged preparation for an attack such as that on Sunday night. The difficulty in destroying an enemy aircraft in the air is understandable but, failure to have contingency plans in place is the issue. Even the mighty United States had failed to prevent the September 11, 2001 attack despite receiving information.
“Come rain or shine, the SLAF can always be depended upon to take command and control of the skies…”
We may add: “Come night, enemy aircraft may take command and control of the skies.” Such control was seen over two long hours on Sunday night.
They came, they saw, they bombed, without success in their stated mission to destroy the fleet of Kfir fighter jets and Mig 27s that have wreaked havoc on the guerilla organisation.
The fact that the Mig 27s undertook five missions since the Sunday night mission, demonstrates that the fleet is intact. It undertook raids over Iranmadu, Mannar North, Mullaitivu North, Karadiyanaru and Challai.
The bombs caused some damage to a few helicopters (some claim two while others say as much as five) that were parked there. In one instance, the bombs exploded in the engineering division, affecting the computerization.
That the target was missed by a whisker, the SLAF must thank its stars that warm night.
The SLAF has come out with flying colours in Eelam War IV, breaking the backbone of the LTTE with its precision bombing of identified targets. It has also greatly assisted the army and navy in many confrontations/operations, barring Muhamalai, where it was kept in the dark.
But, this time, when the key Katunayake base was targeted, there was no defensive measure in place to take on the enemy.
It is not only a shame on the air force; the entire defence establishment must take the blame for its failure to have a plan in place, to be executed in such an eventuality. The Nation did warn the country of an impending air attack.
“The ultimate challenge for the Sri Lankan defence establishment would be to face an air offensive from the LTTE. The nightmare of such an eventuality hangs over the government and the defence establishment, as hostilities between the two parties increase daily.” These were the opening lines in this column headlined, “Vision for a deadly mission,” that appeared on July 23, 2006.
The column under its previous pseudonym Promethus in a double spread, graphically warned of such a “deadly mission” and highlighted it on the Page 1 panel.
Based on intelligence reports, this warning was made a day before the fifth anniversary of the LTTE attack on the SLAF base at Katunayake. (See montage as well as box story for the detailed warning, including the names of aircraft in LTTE possession since 1997). The week before, we cautioned, “Katunayake attack 5th anniversary: Threat still looms.”
Who knows, whether the LTTE had shelved its plans to bomb the Katunayake air base, after the media exposure raised initial alertness? It is highly probable that the LTTE would have wanted to kick off Eelam War IV by destroying its Achilles heel- Kfirs and Mig 27s.
Judging by the government’s response to each Tiger attack, the Tigers knew the military would put its fleet of fighter jets to good use. The attack on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and the June, 2006, Kebbethigollewa massacre, saw the SLAF spring into action, taking on identified rebel targets.
The LTTE believes in springing surprises. Hence, the first ground attack with infiltrators. A ground attack of that magnitude now is unthinkable, as the Tigers know that the forces are well prepared. The question is whether the military needs to be hit to prepare its defences.
Targeting Katunayake or any other place in Colombo by air again will be difficult, as the element of surprise has been taken away. However, unless the authorities swiftly go in for the best radar systems and a planned counter attack or still better, a pre-emptive attack with greater coordination and state-of-the-art equipment, the Tigers could succeed again.
On July 24, 2001, LTTE cadres infiltrated the air base and destroyed 13 aircraft including two Kfir jets, one MI-24 Helicopter gunship and one MIG-27 jet fighter.
Forget intelligence reports. Forget media reports.
Why couldn’t the defence establishment realize that the threat was real, given the August 11 incident last year, when an unidentified aircraft, around 9:00 p.m., had reportedly flown over Palaly military base and fired rockets at the base.
Attacking Palaly base with rockets from the air, ended the military’s artillery fire, the Tigers claimed.
“We will use our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in an all out defensive measure to protect our people and homeland,” said LTTE military spokesman, Irasaiah Ilanthirayan at that juncture.
On the Tiger bombing this week, Ilanthirayan warned that “other Sri Lanka military installations will also be targets of our future attacks.”
These warnings are veiled threats that should not evoke panic but, spur the authorities into being prepared with an exigency plan.
The LTTE was keen to have its aircraft return to base, to maintain its threat to bomb, as smuggling aircraft is no easy task. (Attempts at smuggling dismantled choppers by NGOs, in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, failed).
It is likely that the Tiger pilots, who deny it was a suicide mission on Sunday night, would have been prepared for a suicide mission, if the need arose.
On several occasions, this column had warned that the LTTE is alive to the fact that the SLAF and the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) were not very comfortable in conducting night operations. If the LTTE, the Sri Lanka Navy and the elite forces have fixed their night vision problem, why not the SLAF and the army.
More Mig 27s are being purchased with public funds, without securing those already available. It must, however, be commended that strategically, the SLAF has not stationed all its fighter planes in one location. Also, the authorities have been conducting search operations in the vicinity of its air bases. But, all these precautions are to prevent a ground attack. What about an air attack? Did the authorities reconcile themselves to a wait and see policy.
Not a single aircraft was airborne from Katunayake, Hingurakkoda, Vavuniya or Anuradhapura air bases, after receiving information of these suspicious aircraft.
There should have been a scramble ordered with the intention of intercepting the enemy aircraft. Planes could have taken off from several of the six air bases or seven units of the SLAF equipped with airfields. With basic night vision equipment such an interception would have been possible.
Of course, there was ground-to-air firing to no avail. Does the military have Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) which the LTTE used to bring down Pucaras and Avros in a previous Eelam war?
A detailed discussion on the available air defence system is not possible for security reasons. The silence of the SLAF should not be misinterpreted as an attempt to conceal the truth. Certain matters cannot be discussed in detail for security reasons.
However, it must be mentioned that the Sri Lankan authorities should have been satisfied about the defence system provided by India, before settling for first generation radars, even as a more sophisticated one was offered by China. The radar system we received did not target low-flying aircraft. The country’s defence must come first.
In as much as India is concerned of its own security, vis-à-vis the region, Sri Lanka should have gone for the best during the tenure of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, during a visit to Colombo, who had agreed to provide an air defence radar system. The incumbent Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, however, has been quick to rule out the possibility of the radars failing, even before proper assessment of the technical side of the investigation.
The attack appears to have been timed when three of the radars were taken for servicing, raising suspicions that such information had been leaked to the Tigers. The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) headed by DIG D.W. Prathapasinghe, has already launched an investigation. Following reports that the Special Task Force (STF) personnel from the STF Ganeshapuram camp had informed the SLAF directly and through STF headquarters, that a suspicious aircraft was airborne and moving in the direction of Colombo, Prathapasinghe visited Vavuniya, where police personnel are believed to have spotted the rogue aircraft. He visited the Vavuniya CID office as well as the Terrorist Investigations Division (TID) office. It is learnt that home-guards near Wilpattu, had seen the aircraft.
The flight path of these two low-flying aircraft was reportedly from Iranamadu through Ganeshapuram via Wilpattu to Katunayake. The path was similar to that taken by other aircraft across the sea to quash any suspicions. But the radar at Katunayake had registered the presence of these aircraft.
The fact that these aircraft got away without a hassle, in the absence of any effort by the authorities to intercept them, speaks volumes of how complacent the defence establishment has been.
Following a disclosure in the Sunday Times several years back, that the LTTE had constructed a 1.2 kilometre-long runway south east of the Iranamadu irrigation tank, the existence of such an airstrip was confirmed by none other than the then SLMM Chief Hagrup Hauukland.
You don’t build airstrips for nothing. The defence establishment should have anticipated such an attack and done all in its power to pre-empt such a strike. Military exercises should have been conducted towards this end. Simply informing the United States and India will not serve the intended purpose. A plan should have been drawn up to meet the challenge and it should have been tried and tested.
We did mention a range of possibilities, including a Czech built aircraft that was in the possession of the LTTE since 1997. The aircraft, in knocked down form, was transported to LTTE territory by Sujith Gunapala, who was part of the Sea Tigers. He has admitted to the authorities.
After the first Katunayake attack, the year 2001 spelt doom for the country, registering, for the first time, a negative growth. That same year, in September, there were bad tidings for the LTTE. The organisation’s nascent Air Wing called Vaanpuligal (Air Tigers) was struck by double tragedy.
The chief of the Air Tigers Vythialingam Sornalingam alias ‘Col.’ Shankar, a former aeronautical engineer attached to Air Canada, was killed by a deep penetration team called the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP).
That same month, on the 11th to be precise, the world woke up to one of the biggest terrorist attacks (twin towers in New York) using planes on a suicide mission. With these twin happenings, the Tigers’ dreams of developing its air power was checked in its tracks.
In the backdrop of the Tiger attack on the airbase/airport, the government was forced to settle for peace talks, while the LTTE was compelled to return to the negotiating table with an international war on terror declared.
However, for the LTTE, these were temporary setbacks. It used the truce to get the weapons and ammunition it required for the next bout of war. It also got down two aeronautical engineers from Switzerland and the United States, to finalise aspects of its air wing which it now calls Tamileelam Air Force (TAF).
An Asian Tribune report states that several others Thileepan, Samraj, Chandran, Sinna Jeevah, Mahesh, Kryun Mikola and others are involved in the air wing. Some have trained in France and Czechoslovakia, while some others procure aircraft spares and other related equipment which they shipped through Singapore. The website also gives details of the LTTE air wing in Malaysia, where LTTE cadres were put through training classes in aeronautical engineering and training at the Advance Aeronautical Training Center in Perak owned by a T. Dorai who has admitted to training Sri Lankans from Jaffna.


SLAF dead and injured personnel

Rajapaksa, Shantha Lal and Priyantha died while those injured and receiving treatment at the Negombo hospital include Rajapaksa and Edirisinghe, Kekulanda, Sampath, Priyadharshana, Udayakumara, Samaranayaka, Ratnayaka, Bandara and Karunaratne.


Court of Inquiry

Air Force Commander Air Marshall Roshan Gunatilleke has appointed a five-member Court of Inquiry headed by the Chief of Staff and four others representing the Engineering, Medical, Air Defence System and Security. While the Air Defence system is the responsibility of the SLAF, the Court will inquire into the quality of the radar system, its response, the actions taken by the Base Commander Group Captain Kolitha Gunetilleke, who was informed, whether the information was passed to the correct personnel; what action was taken; whether there was proper coordination; whether there were security lapses; whether information was leaked out; and so on.


Vision for a deadly mission over Colombo skies

The ultimate challenge for the Sri Lankan defence establishment would be to face an air offensive from the LTTE. The nightmare of such an eventuality hangs over the government and the defence establishment, as hostilities between the two parties increase daily, under the very eyes of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), making a mockery of the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) that is still in place.
If the two parties fail to catch the many messages that war is not an option and eventually opt for a fresh bout of war, the LTTE would not hesitate to use whatever air capability it has acquired over the last few years.
All defence experts hint at such a scenario. It is not just a ruse but a real threat. An air attack, probably a suicidal one like the 9/11 attack in the US, at a key establishment should be anticipated and necessary preventive measures taken.
Air capability of the LTTE would severely threaten the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan government over its airspace. So far, it is only the government that had full control of the air, thereby assisting ground troops during an operation. The most dangerous factor is that the Sri Lankan radar systems, at present, are blind below 1000 feet, making targets vulnerable to attacks from aircraft flying below 1,000 ft.
It is now clear that the LTTE would go to any extent to launch an attack on a key economic and strategic establishment. Their failed attempt at laying sea mines around the Colombo port recently, is evidence of such Tiger tactics. When the LTTE is likely to think that they should go towards an all out war, they would use whatever air capabilities in their possession, to undertake a suicide mission.
Is the government and the defence establishment ready to face such a situation? The government of course, has turned towards big brother – India – to acquire an air defence radar system. This was also discussed during the recent visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, to the country. India knows that one such suicidal attack by the LTTE, using its limited airpower, would result in the air force going on the rampage in the north, as it did after the attack on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Last week, we focused on the LTTE targeting the Katunayake airbase, the Ratmalana airport and other sensitive defence locations, to cut off the supply routes to Jaffna, before a final onslaught to capture the peninsula.
The LTTE’s acquisition of air capability came into public discussion in the late nineties. The Tigers themselves proclaimed that flower petals were dropped by an aircraft during the 1998 Matyrs Day celebrations.
It has also been revealed during interrogation of LTTE suspects, that the Tigers have acquired air capability to some extent. Questioning of an LTTE gun running suspect arrested in Thailand, has brought to light that he had been engaged in unloading a small aircraft contained in two large boxes in 1997. The suspect, Sujith, was arrested in 2003, while trying to smuggle weapons to the eastern coast of Sri Lanka through Thailand. He had been an active member of the Sea Tiger wing engaged in transporting weapons and other goods for the LTTE, from ships anchored in mid sea.
It can be surmised that the LTTE had brought light aircrafts in parts and had assembled them here. It is being suspected by military intelligence that the LTTE would have acquired these light aircraft from Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
The LTTE could be in possession of a P-21, Pilatius aircraft. If in the possession of the LTTE, the P-21 allows the LTTE the capability to move high value goods and personnel. It has extensive range and allows access to key destinations such as Thailand and Cambodia. This one pilot plane could be used to transport weapons and narcotics, as well as other sophisticated electronics systems. It could be operated at night as well.
The sophisticated P-12 could be used for strafing runs on the battlefield and for close air support. It can be deployed for reconnaissance and aerial photography missions. It could be also used for attacks on the Colombo airport or for gas attacks on military bases.
Apart from these, the LTTE could be in possession of micro copters as well, which could be used for suicide missions and support in the battlefield, due to easy maneuverability and low flying capability.
Associated with the LTTE air capability is its runway at Iranamadu and possibly at Sampur in Trincomalee. The Iranamadu runway has come under constant bombardment by the Air Force. However, the runaway is not an issue, according to defence experts, since these light aircraft could easily take off from the temporary clearing in the forest as well.
The defence establishment should do all in its power to prepare for the worst, rather than be caught unawares.
The new Chief of Defence Staff Donald Perera is expected to bury whatever differences there is among the three forces and draw up battle plans involving the combined forces to take on the common enemy.


Tigers with Wings - Air Power of the LTTE

The LTTE is the only militant group, after the Nicaraguan ‘Contras’, to acquire air power. Unlike the ‘Contras’, the Tigers have developed their air wing without any external State support. Why would the LTTE need an air wing? What is its strength? And, what are its security implications?
The primary need for the LTTE to gain air power was to counter the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF). The LTTE suffered immense damage in the past due to indiscriminate bombings by the SLAF; so, it became imperative for the LTTE to counter the SLAF. In the mid 1990s, it acquired anti-aircraft guns, making the SLAF immobile, until it regained a technological edge by acquiring radars and other air defence systems. Thereafter, the only option left for the LTTE was to engage the SLAF in the air. Secondly, the LTTE needed an air wing to demonstrate its capability to establish a State structure to its people and to the outside world. Not surprisingly, during last Heroes’ Week (November 2004), the ‘Air Tigers’ displayed their newly acquired aircraft at Mulliyavalai in Mullaitivu District. The LTTE, apparently, had declared 2000 as the “Year of Air Tigers”. Like any other professional force, it now has air, sea, and land forces, with intelligence, artillery, and commando wings. Thirdly, the LTTE could use its air assets in emergencies - to get supplies from outside or evacuate critically wounded cadres for treatment. Since there was a cease-fire, it did not have much difficulty in taking its Sea Tiger Chief, Soosai, for treatment to Singapore, which may not have been possible during war time. Fourthly, it could use its air wing to deter the Sri Lankan Government in general.
It is difficult to assess the exact strength of the ‘Air Tigers’, which is still in the formative stage. Till his assassination in September 2001 ‘Col’ Shankar (Vythialingam Sornalingam), once an aeronautical engineer with Air Canada, was the chief of the Vaanpuligal (‘Air Tigers’). He was responsible for developing the air wing from scratch since 1995. According to a report submitted early this year to the President by the SLAF, during a routine reconnaissance by a UAV on January 12 2005, it found an airfield “estimated around 3,600 feet in length, with a paved surface that was sufficient to land quite an array of aircraft”-”medium lift aircraft and even aircraft such as C-130” - south east of Iranamadu irrigation tank. The LTTE’s attempts to construct an airstrip goes back to the 1990s, which were repeatedly thwarted by the SLAF. But, the present airstrip has survived because of the cease-fire. The UAV also identified the presence of two aircraft: one of them has been confirmed by the United States to be a Czech built Zlin Z-143, and the other as a “medium range, light aircraft (perhaps Swiss built Pilatus PC 7 trainer), thought to possess the capability to fly for about 350 nautical miles at an average speed of 150 mph (240 kmph) and carry an ordnance load of 1,040 kilograms.” It is believed that a handful of LTTE cadres were trained in France and UK as pilots.
Threat Analyses
The LTTE claims that it acquired its air power well before signing the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002; but the Sri Lankan government disputes this. Not getting into pedantic arguments of before or after the CFA, the more relevant question now is how will Sri Lanka address this new threat? It is about time that the personnel in charge of the island’s security find answers to the following questions:
* Is the LTTE now in a position to attack any target in the Island? If so, what are the most likely high-risk targets and how to defend them?
* Is there a possibility of ‘suicidal attacks’ similar to 9/11, on a Colombo high rise building or, targets of economic and political significance?
* Is the SLAF trained and armed to undertake air-to-air combat, which has never occurred in SLAF’s history?
* Would the Tigers attempt to transport military hardware by air? How could these sorties be countered? Could neighbouring countries help, on the pattern of the existing naval cooperation against the Sea Tigers on the high seas?
* Is there a possibility of landing a hijacked plane in Tiger controlled territory? The LTTE, of course, has no history of hijacking, but is it in a position to say “no” to a hijacked plane landing on its airstrips by a “friendly” terrorist group?
* What are the security implications for India? How will both countries address this new threat?